How COVID-19 is Advancing Healthcare’s Need for a Digital Transformation

Many of those living in this modern era of information have never experienced such a far-reaching, globally impactful event like the novel coronavirus.

For a population that is used to a wealth of data at our fingertips, yet to be faced with so many unknowns, it can be difficult to rationalize a new status quo. Especially when that data pertains to your health.

Healthcare has historically been a late adopter of the most applicable information technology solutions. In our discussions with healthcare industry leaders and experts, there is a prevailing theme of hope. In the midst of COVID-19, the imperativeness of healthcare information technologies, like those meant to improve virtual care and patient access is becoming even more apparent.

A Call for Innovation, Adoption, and Improvement

COVID-19 is disrupting businesses and industries nationwide, and somewhat disproportionately healthcare. In the face of reduced operations, limited services, and in some cases cut or furloughed staff, some experts predict that upon recovery, healthcare will be better off than before.

Could it be that there is a positive side effect to this virus, a silver-lining? Yes! COVID-19 is bringing to light the critical need for HIT for population health management. The current pandemic has shown that integrating smarter, more automated, more interoperable technologies into everyday healthcare is not only a priority, but a necessity.

COVID-19 is an accelerant to a hospital’s adoption of digital-forward operations, says Michael Archuleta, CIO of Mt. San Rafael Hospital. Archuleta’s IT department is a five-time recipient of Healthcare’s Most Wired Award. He attributes some of their hospital’s relative operational success during the pandemic to a strong technological foundation.

“Healthcare organizations need to take a more ingrained approach in incorporating IT as a core component of the organizational strategy,” says Archuleta. “If we can take the experience gained from this unique challenge, we can evolve our practices and continue to invest in technology. That technology investment will allow us to continue to build tools that benefit our patients both inside and outside our organizations.”

Paul Wilder, Executive Director of CommonWell Health Alliance, shares a similar vision noting how an integrated, nationwide healthcare IT network can vastly improve population health management. Wilder claims that healthcare interoperability may not only help hospitals from an operational standpoint but can also close gaps in the epidemiology of COVID-19 and future wide-spread illnesses.

The former CIO of the New York eHealth Collaborative noticed that many providers initially had difficulty treating COVID-19 patients because of a lack of data. Wilder claims that as the virus spread, providers had to rely on secondary data to identify patterns which can cause issues.

“If more providers are given access to at least deidentified COVID data sets, clinicians can then begin to make better clinical pathway decisions,” states Wilder.

Wilder also points out that any interoperability initiatives that gain speed on the heels of the pandemic will need to closely consider patient privacy and security.

Safeguarding Patients with Information Technology

At the center of it all, Archuleta reminds us that healthcare is first and foremost about safeguarding patients’ lives. Patient lives are also intrinsically connected to patient health data. When a facility is breached, not only can it put a patient’s health at risk but can also expose private financial information. Penalties that come as a result of a breach can significantly affect a hospital, which can eventually impact a community’s ability to receive timely, quality care.

Healthcare as a potentially easy target for cybercrime has only become more apparent during the pandemic.

In mid-March the US Health and Human Services Department was hacked. In late April, leaders of the World Health Organization were targeted by cybercriminals. In the midst of struggling with COVID-19, PPE shortages, and operational strains, Mt. San Rafael’s sister hospital suffered a ransomware attack.

Around 3 A.M., the Mt. San Rafael Hospital cybersecurity network began to track abnormalities in the systems. At that moment the network immediately locked down all connections to their sister facility.

“If we hadn’t disconnected from our sister hospital, that malware would have leaked into this organization and we would have been in the same boat,” says Archuleta. “We need to focus on those components. That’s the bottom line. Technology is important.”

Where to Start with Digital Transformation 

Technology is important, but what about those hospitals who were struggling to keep the lights on even before the pandemic hit? According to the most recent data from The Chartis Center for Rural Health, close to 47 percent of rural hospitals were operating at a loss pre-pandemic. Where do they find the resources for this digital transformation?

Alan Morgan with the National Rural Health Association (NRHA) notes that recent updates to the CARES Act have helped. He adds that the relaxing of telehealth regulations have also helped relieve some burdens, especially for rural providers.

With HHS relaxing regulations concerning non-compliant telehealth technologies, it becomes easier for smaller hospitals with fewer resources to better connect with patients by enhancing their digital footprint.

“This crisis has highlighted a lack of investment and need for data systems that we can easily assess to deliver high quality care in rural America,” says Morgan. “Issues around interoperability, funding, capacity, and utilization of data tracking are coming to the forefront . . . I think it’s going to be a focal point once we are through this.”

From what MEDHOST has witnessed, Morgan’s vision is widespread across the industry. Such concurrent views are why Archuleta believes COVID-19 has been a catalyst for advancing healthcare’s digital transformation.

“Hospitals and their leadership need to start looking at IT differently,” states Archuleta. “At Mt. San Rafael we see IT as less of a cost center and more of an investment that ultimately allows us to provide more comprehensive quality care.”

For healthcare providers looking for ways to communicate the importance of digital transformation, Archuleta suggests they begin by outlining the financial, operational, and reputational damages and benefits.

“This crisis has fully displayed the value of technology and digital transformation,” adds Archuleta. “Unfortunately, a lot of hospitals are realizing that too late.”

Today’s patient is the “new hospital CEO,” says Archuleta. The sooner healthcare providers realize adopting the most relevant healthcare IT tools can help them best meet the demands of their new CEO, the better it will be for everyone.

To find out how MEDHOST is helping hospitals and healthcare facilities of all kinds get to the forefront of the digital transformation, email us at inquiries@medhost.com or call 1.800.383.6278

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